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Mini Food Forest Garden

Updated: Nov 7, 2023

blanket flower in permaculture garden design portland oregon, tiny food forest, small ecological garden, sustainable landscaping
A little bee on our NW Native Blanketflower, Gaillardia aristata, in this Mt. Tabor front yard converted to a food forest.

Location: Portland, Oregon

Landscape Design: Alana Chau

Install: DIY

These clients live in a new housing development with an HOA and no backyard. Despite these constraints, the food forest we created together is incredibly abundant.

sandpit for kids in permaculture garden design portland oregon, tiny food forest, small ecological garden, sustainable landscaping
Who needs lawn? A small sandpit tucked into the corner, plus the water feature, and endless food to pick. This is a much more entertaining yard for a five-year-old than the old lawn.

A food forest is a designed edible garden that incorporates permaculture principles and forest ecology. Although the end result is beautiful, the designing is less about aesthetics and more about output. The beauty of any such garden is enhanced by knowledge about the plants and elements

Plant Highlights:

In this garden, three dwarf fruit trees will be closely pruned every year- the Izu Persimmon a dwarf apple tree, and a standard fig tree. Using vertical space is incredibly important, with vines tucked into every nook and cranny- table grapes, kiwi and annual vines such as Carol Deppe's Sweet Meat squash. The understory consists of herbs, annual vegetables, perennial vegetables and flowering perennials.

Mt. Tabor landscape design, pollinator garden, perennial garden in Portland, OR designed by Alana Chau
Yarrow, Blanketflower, Bee Balm and Salvias fill this garden with pollinators and beauty.

Flowering perennials, both native to Portland as well as other favorites, bring in the pollinators. At this visit, the client explained that there weren't as many flowers as normal because she had just cut them for a bouquet. Still looks pretty abundant to me!

wildflower bouquet from food forest garden
The client creates these bouquets for her neighbors, as well as giving away excess veggies. Good communication and sharing the abundance is key to getting neighbors on board with an alternative front yard.

Perennial Kale, Scarlet Runner Beans, and various forms of Alliums are perennial staples in this understory as well.

Sustainability Highlights:

Besides the incredible habitat created for bees and butterflies, the food forest garden contains many more eco-friendly features.

The first step, as is typical, was removing the lawn. Unfortunately, the builder-grade lawn was installed with the plastic netting, so the homeowners removed as much of the dreaded plastic as was reasonable, knowing that they will be finding more as time goes on. Then, they smothered the lawn with cardboard and added material on top - wood chips for paths, compost for beds, and fallen logs from the neighborhood are used as garden edging. This allowed the new edible plants to get off to a good start. How else could the clients go from lawn to this incredible abundance in just 4 months!

In our climate, summer water is always a constraint. Yes, we get an average 36 inches of rain per year, but it all comes in winter and spring. Therefore, every design must take into consideration summer irrigation. Our strategy in this garden includes good soil (which can hold many times it's weight in water) and always keeping the ground covered (right now it's straw but will eventually include micro-clover). Drip irrigation was originally in the design, but the clients are enjoying their garden so much they have been happy to hand water while they check out their plants.

permaculture garden design portland oregon, tiny food forest, small ecological garden, sustainable landscaping
Garden beds edged with fallen logs, that will very slowly decompose and feed the plants. Cedar chips cover the pathways, protecting soil and suppressing weeds.

Composting is incredibly easy. Watching food scraps become soil and worms with very little effort is very satisfying. There are so many different methods of composting depending on the space and time commitment. For this home, we needed the most HOA-friendly composting system out there, so I suggested the Subpod. The results are great so far.

permaculture garden design portland oregon, tiny food forest, small ecological garden, sustainable landscaping
Subpod is a composting system that is sunken in the ground and completely protected from critters, making it a good choice for a small garden in an HOA.

In a small garden such as this, we needed a self-contained water feature that could provide habitat and experimentation with food plants without taking up too much space. The half whiskey barrel is filled with aquatic plants such as wapato and water lettuce. In permaculture and food forest design, there is a strong emphasis on each element providing multiple outputs, or "stacking functions". In our case, these plants are edible, filter the water, and create habitat for frogs and dragonflies. A simple solar powered fountain keeps the water moving.

permaculture water garden, small ecological water feature
Small water garden is new home to frogs and passing dragonflies. A simple solar powered fountain recirculates water while the plants (wapato, water lettuce, etc) filter the water as well. A very entertaining and useful water feature!

The homeowner explains: "While water lettuce are technically edible... we mainly use them as pollinator landing pads and are hoping their roots will be welcoming spawning habitat for our new Japanese rice fish." I can't wait to see the evolution of this mini-pond!

And because I can't resist a good before and after, enjoy...

before photo of ugly lawn
BEFORE: muddy lawn, sparse plants
an abundant, resilient food forest is starting to take shape. Cedar chip paths lined with fallen logs, an apple guild, an edible water feature, and a subpod compost bin only scratch the surface of all the elements that make up with front yard in SE Portland.
AFTER: an abundant, resilient food forest is starting to take shape.

Creating this garden design and supporting the family as they DIY'd it has been a real joy. I know I will get to follow along as it progresses and I will post updated pictures when possible.


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